Covert Aggression and Manipulation
Covert aggression underlies most interpersonal manipulation. True, you can manipulate others overtly. That is, you can be so confident of someone’s likely response that you don’t hesitate to show your hand. But most of the time, manipulators get their way by hiding their true agendas. They’re out to win, dominate, and control, but don’t want to appear so. Therefore, they cloak their aggressive intentions in a variety of clever tactics. And these tactics both intimidate and disarm others but still allow their user to look good. I speak to these tactics in all my books, especially In Sheep’s Clothing.
The “Gaslighting” Effect
Covert-aggressors exploit your good nature. Conscientious people possess good consciences, and are capable of shame and guilt. So, by pressing your guilt button or inviting you to feel ashamed, a skilled manipulator can easily sway you. And they can make you feel crazy for suspecting they’re up to no good. Their justifications sound so reasonable. And the way they cast you as a villain appears in some way valid. That’s how they get the better of you. It’s also the way they make you feel crazy. In your heart, you sense they only mean to get the better of you. But you can’t objectively validate your hunch. And that can make you feel pretty crazy.
The crazy-making effect of covert aggression is called “gaslighting.” Some authors brand it a tactic in itself. And indeed, it can be a specific tactic. But most of the time, it results from any of the many manipulation tactics. And as mentioned last week, you can magnify its effect in several ways. (See: Gaslighting Victims Question Their Sanity.) You can put passion and conviction into the tactics. Or you can combine tactics in clever ways. The more a manipulator throws at you, and the more righteous they appear when doing so, the greater the gaslighting effect.
Gaslighting as a Specific Tactic
A manipulator can set out to make someone feel crazy. They sometimes do this for tactical, exploitative purposes. An example follows (as always, with details altered to preserve anonymity):
Marian thought she was truly losing her mind. She also thought she might be suffering some dementia. She had been looking for her spare house key for weeks. Marian always kept it in a particular place, for emergencies. But it simply disappeared one day. So when she finally found it, she began seriously questioning her mental state. Who would put it in an empty shoe box in her closet? She knew she wouldn’t. And who would wrap the box in a ribbon? Then it came to her. And with the realization came the horror. It had to be Ralph’s doing. And to think she believed she’d finally escaped his grasp.
Marian left Ralph 9 months ago after years of abuse. And she had to move locations and change her phone number more than once to keep him at bay. She thought she finally wrested herself from his clutches. But he was sending her a message: escape would be impossible. He could find her, anytime, anywhere. The mere thought struck terror into her heart. He would always have the last say, it seemed. It wouldn’t be over until he said so. That left her feeling helpless and more than a little hopeless. But at least she didn’t feel crazy anymore. It wasn’t her after all. It was Ralph after all, …always Ralph!
Some Closing Thoughts
Covert aggression intimidates and controls. But one can intimidate in more overt ways, too. Abusers do whatever they have to do to maintain their grip. And when covert measures fail, they can easily resort to more overt means. Any abuse victim knows this. Unfortunately, they’ve often had to learn it the hard way.
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